Four summers ago, Serenbe Playhouse appropriated a wildflower meadow for a sexy, pollen-scented production of the 1960s rock musical “Hair.”
Last year, it imagined a raging Vietnam War in the Chattahoochee Hills community it calls home, landing a helicopter in a field and bringing a touch of cinematic verisimilitude (and national press) to “Miss Saigon.”
That question — what will Serenbe Playhouse founder Brian Clowdus do next? — has brought excitement and suspense to the Atlanta theater landscape in the seven seasons that Serenbe Playhouse has been a thing.
This year, while Clowdus prepares to go on as the emcee in the Kander and Ebb classic “Cabaret” (opening Aug. 3), guest director Amy Boyce Holtcamp envisions Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in a primeval forest replete with a gushing waterfall.
Audience members are required to hike deep into the woods to reach the site-specific location. And it’s a dazzler: a preternaturally beautiful, tree-canopied lagoon crawling with witches and dark magic, mud and mosquitoes. It’s a heart of darkness where soldiers lurk in fatigues and witches look like “Walking Dead” zombies.
In this natural lacuna, Lady Macbeth (an exquisite Maythinee Washington) can actually wade into the water to try to wash out her “damned spot.” Birnam Wood never seems far away. And when Macbeth (Justin Deeley) muses about dispatching Duncan (Lee Osorio), his reference to this “bank and shoal of time” is washed with meaning.
Overall, it’s a fresh conceit that brings vitality to a sacred tragedy of ambition and murderous sexuality. But somehow, the visceral bite of the story gets lost in the grotto. Thanks to all the rain we’ve been having, the air can be moist and dank. And we’ve heard a few jokes about the curse of “the Scottish play.”
Now, now. We wouldn’t go that far.
But that waterfall is loud, so loud that actors have to wear mics to be heard. They also have to navigate a swampy, densely forested landscape, a slick and mossy boulder, and (after a downpour) tons of mud.
All that sloshing around takes time and softens the focus of a story that my date for the night observed is spoken in “a different language.” (For the record, the show is about 2 1/2 hours long, including intermission, but the hike to and from the waterfall can add on another 20 minutes or so, depending on weather.)
As for the performances, I admire Deeley’s natural take on the language. He talks like a regular guy, a little bit country maybe. But sometimes, the lines go flat and don’t quite land. Where excessive pride and vaulting ambition are needed, Deeley can seem meek and mild almost.
Washington, on the other hand, is a sensational Lady M.
In my mind, it is Lady Macbeth’s play after all. (Macbeth is just her tool.) With a little help from those witches, she ratchets up the chaos and madness. When Washington attempts to wash out those imagined spots, her Lady Macbeth writhes and squirms like a person unhinged.
As for the Weird Sisters, these aren’t the kind of witches with hats, broomsticks and cauldrons. They are grotesque, hunched, prone to shape-shifting and violence.
Skye Passmore has a lanky physique, and he uses it almost like a contortionist. (Linda Blair’s turn in “The Exorcist” comes to mind.) Jessica de Maria exudes an earthy, voluptuous quality that serves her witch well. Jasmine Thomas completes the trio.
Osorio brings a gruff, gravelly tone to Duncan; even if you’ve seen Osorio in other recent productions, you may not recognize him. Later, as MacDuff, he doffs his army helmet and sunglasses, his transformation into another character complete.
Justin Walker, as Malcolm, grows from a rough-and-tumble lad to prince and, ultimately, king. Walker’s performance seems to sharpen as his character’s status grows, and his language becomes more fluent. One snag, though: Kelly Criss is a little lackluster in the important role of Banquo.
In the end, I like the idea of this “Macbeth” more than the execution. Sunny skies would probably do it a world of good. For now, it can be a slippery slope.
Through July 9. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. $25-$30. Serenbe Playhouse. 11213 Serenbe Lane, Chattahoochee Hills. (Look for the green signs.) 770-463-1110, serenbeplayhouse.com.
Bottom line: Rain can put damper on outdoor show.
IN OTHER NEWS:
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.